When Dr Beeching took his notorious axe to Britain's railway network in the early 1960s, he did so in the assumption that the age of the railway was over and the management of decline was the order of the day. Fast-forward to 2011 and it is obvious how mistaken that was. New figures from the Association of Train Operating Companies show that Britain's railways are expected to enjoy their busiest peacetime year since the 1920s, with more than 1.3 billion journeys completed by the end of this year.
Whether this growth in the popularity of rail travel boosts the case for costly grands projets such as the high-speed connection to the Midlands, costed at about £30bn, is open to question. It is interesting that the highest growth this year was in journeys taken in London and the south-east rather than in long-distance travel, while another growth area was in use of small rural branch lines – precisely the kind of lines that used to be considered the rail network's biggest liability. The argument deserves to continue, therefore, over whether future investment should be targeted towards further improvements to high-speed, cross-country routes, or plugging the woeful gaps in our often neglected commuter and branch line services.
What no one can seriously reject is the need for greater investment in the railways in general. Soaring petrol prices is one of the principal factors powering the growth in train travel, and as a return to the days of cheap petrol appears inconceivable, it would be wise to bank on the need for the continued rail expansion.
Yet there is not much sign that the Government has taken this on board. Ministers remain wedded to the idea that the railways should stand on their own feet. At the Tory party conference, when the then Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, promised a "a comprehensive blueprint for reforming our railways", he made a point of adding that it would be "asking the hard questions about taxpayer subsidy". This is the wrong way to go. Unless we want the number of rail passengers to decline again, which would be environmentally disastrous, ministers should be making a case for increased subsidies, not cutting them.Reuse content